When Joel Beers was a boy, his uncle gave him a table-top baseball game that featured player cards from past stars in the sport. On the backs of the cards were brief bios, along with career statistics.
Beers doesn’t remember the exact adjective used to describe the great left-hander Rube Waddell. Possibly zany, eccentric, strange, off-beat or wacky. Whatever it was, it tickled a young boy’s imagination.
“That just stuck with me over the years,” Beers, 53, said. “He was on my radar and I was struck by the number of stories about him. I was always drawn to larger-than-life figures and kind of misfits.”
That was Waddell.
Several decades of percolating led to the play “Rube!”, which originally opened in Fullerton in 2003, with a follow-up at the Muckenthaler Center a year later. The play makes its third appearance in Orange County when it opens for the first of three weekends, Friday, Sept. 13, at the Curtis Theatre in Brea.
With the subtitle, “A play about baseball, highly fictionalized,” “Rube!” tells of famed sports writer Grantland Rice on assignment to re-create the life and times of the star pitcher nearly a decade after Waddell died at the age of 37.
Rice finds himself sifting through Waddell’s crazy life, the fact and fiction, to understand one of baseball’s most mercurial and start-crossed figures.
In Beers’ telling, Waddell blazes through relationships with historical figures such as famed journalist Ida Tarbell, Ty Cobb and the Babe himself. Numerous tales— true, suspect and outlandish—are thrown in.
If that isn’t enough, along the way weighty societal issues of segregation and racism, unionization and players’ rights, women’s suffrage and equality also work their unlikely way into the “Rube!” rubric.
Asked if maybe this is a little too much for one play to encompass, Beers admits his plays sometimes try to cram a lot into a limited space.
“Rube!” is about three of Beers’ passions, baseball, history and journalism, but he says eventually “It becomes a play about stories and who owns them.”
Because of the interplay of fact and fiction, audience members may find themselves scratching their heads and saying, “Wait a minute.”
Throughout “Rube!”, there is a repeating bit of dialogue after outlandish tales about Waddell when the question is posed.
“Is that true?”
“Hell if I know, but it’s a hell of a story.”
Patrick Gwaltney, who is directing the play for the third time, said he had never sought to do a baseball play when he was introduced to the script in 2003. However, he was intrigued by the play’s take on turn-of-the-20th-century social issues, many of which linger today.
Since the play debuted, Gwaltney has had two sons who are now in Little League. The boys, he says, have changed his whole perception about the balance between baseball as a heartless business and a game of passion and innocence.
“I have a totally different relationship with baseball now,” he said. “Have you watched the Little League World Series? It’s the heart of baseball. Rube Waddell is that. He’s my two 11-year-olds on the mound. Pro baseball, I can’t watch that after Little League.”
Brock Joseph, who plays Waddell, calls himself a lifelong baseball fan and says the chance to merge acting and baseball is a treat.
“It’s a rare opportunity, not just to play a real character, but someone who was so eccentric,” he said.
As an actor, Joseph said one of his challenges is to understand that Waddell’s outlandish behavior and naïveté may have been symptomatic of an undiagnosed mental disorder.
“You have to be sensitive to that,” he said.
Beers left it to Joseph to decide how to portray the possible mental issues.
Regardless of his mental acuity, Waddell was a babe in the woods in the cut-throat world of early 20th century America and baseball.
“It’s all conjecture,” Beers said of the after-the-fact mental diagnoses and Waddell’s stability. “The trajectory of the show is such that it’s not essential (to know).”
Rather, the story is about Waddell’s heart, his naïveté and his desire to lift up underdogs. In real life, and in the play, baseball used up and spit out Rube Waddell, who died penniless in a sanitarium suffering from tuberculosis.
But “Rube!” would never let the story end on that note.
There is one last story that takes place in a train station. We won’t give up what happens, but you may find yourself asking, “Wait, is that true?”
Hell if I know, but it’s a hell of a story.
Greg Mellen is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at [email protected].